Reflections on SOPHIA & ICPIC part III

In this final post by Pieter Mostert he reflects on taxonomies, on pedagogy and on ‘philosophical experience’ and the aesthetic eye. 

What happens to notes taken during a conference? Usually very little, at least in my case. This time I decided to do it differently – after the ICPIC conference in Madrid and the Sophia Network meeting in Aveiro – and pushed myself to structure and unfold my notes into short essays, representing my ‘inner dialogues’ on a number of topics. Here is the third of 3 blogs on my reflections. You can read the first one here and the second one here.

You can find some of the presentations that were given at SOPHIA on our resources page for members.

On taxonomies

There are not many taxonomies. But there are very many lists / graphs / tables which divide a complex ‘thing’ in a number of subcategories and so on. When, for example, one looks at the structure developed by the editors of ‘Philpapers’ [https://philpapers.org/] for the more than 5,000 categories, one notices some kind of hierarchical order of areas of philosophy, themes and topics. It’s a practical tool and if the editors decide it’s time for some kind of adaptation, they implement it. The hierarchy does not pretend to tell us how philosophy ‘hangs together’.

A taxonomy, however, is only a ‘taxonomy’ if it can state the ‘nomos’, the law behind the division in ‘taxon’, roughly speaking: the categories. This I learned when I studied theoretical biology (which fortunately was still possible in the Netherlands in the seventies; soon after that it ‘died’). The perfect example of a taxonomy is Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements: within the theoretical framework of what an ‘atom’ is, it shows exactly why each element is designated a specific place. This theoretical framework is not undisputed in current science, but that’s not a reason for terminating the use of the periodic table. Linnaeus, however, made a similar attempt to design a taxonomy for all the plants and animals, a very lucid attempt, but the theoretical framework of genetics (model of DNA) has recently moved into such revolutionary technologies and applications, that a whole new perspective is emerging on the origin of and similarities among the animals and plants. In biology we are on the verge of a total revamp of Linnaeus’ taxonomy and start the design of a DNA-based taxonomy.

I’ve participated in several educational projects for designing ‘rubrics’ for assessment. I’m glad I’ve given up on that. The unsolvable problem was not the ‘breaking up’ of what teachers aimed at into categories and levels; that’s just a matter of combining sound expertise with creativity. The unsolvable problem was that there was no theoretical mode, or ‘justification’ behind the divisions we made, neither horizontal nor vertical. It all remained at a very ‘accidental’ level: accidently we arrived at certain divisions, we might as well have come to different ones. The same difficulty, I think, is endemic in lists of critical thinking skills / 21st century skills: they lack a ‘nomos’.

And how about Bloom? Indeed, Bloom’s taxonomy does not meet the main criterion of theoretical biology for a ‘thing’ to be called a taxonomy: it is uncertain and at least very implicit about the theoretical framework. In modern cognitive psychology there is a continuous stream of new attempts to come up with such a theoretical framework, all very interesting and challenging, but we’re not there yet. Bloom must wait, before we can decide whether his division deserves to be called a ‘taxonomy’.

On pedagogy

It was a surprise to me noticing during the ICPIC conference how loosely the term ‘pedagogy’ is used. In many instances I was not sure to what it referred. In Gert Biesta’s keynote address I spotted the word just a couple times, loosely used, without much emphasis. Is pedagogy the discipline that studies education? If so, does that include or exclude the study of learning? Are pedagogues the ones who promote the language of education, in contrast to those promoting the language of learning? Or does ‘pedagogy’ refer to what happens in the classroom? I did not invent these questions, I just wrote them down, having observed how the term was used (like “well, my colleague has a different pedagogy”).

We call them ‘Faculties of Education’ and some, but not all of the departments of such faculties focus on schools, teaching and learning. In Dutch, Afrikaans and German there are two words: onderwijs / Unterricht [education; focusing on what happens in and around schools] and opvoeding / Erziehung [‘raising’, like in “It takes a village to raise a child”]. Or from my own life: my boys go to school, but I ‘raise’ them; who’s doing the education?

I would say that ‘pedagogy’ is about ‘leading the young to adulthood’; there is not a big reason to divert from the original Greek word. Whether education in the stricter sense (what is done / what happens within the setting of schools) is seen as a part of pedagogy or rather as a counter part, I think is debatable (and is not of great interest to me). And whether the newspeak ‘educationalist’ is worth being used I don’t know either. A pedagogue who argues that (s)he isn’t one but rather is an educationalist, because schools are not taking their task to ‘educate’ seriously anymore – I do not think this adds much to clarify the picture.

So what is it about? I think it is about the role of the state / government in the education / pedagogy of the young ones to adulthood. Those who are inclined to radically separate the “learning done in schools” and the “education so needed”, have to answer the question how much or how little intervention / control by the state they want in schools once they have become ‘institutions of education’. Personally I must say that I am very happy that the focus of the state in all its mechanisms of control is on the learning of very specific things, in primary education mainly the competence in reading and arithmetic. I do not look forward to the day that the state decides to embrace ‘education’ in its full span and starts dictating very specific contents, approaches and assessments for the full spectrum of ‘being led into the world of adulthood’. So those who are in favour of ‘bringing back education into the schools’, should tell me what their views are on the role of the state. My facial expression is one of deep pessimism and worry.

On ‘philosophical experiences’ and the aesthetic eye

In philosophy for children we often assume that students have had certain experiences and that it is enough to refer to them in order to enable students to reflect on such experiences. Example: students can enquire what the problem is in bullying, what the relevance is of friendship, when a test is ‘fair’ or a person ‘honest’. We do not need to start with a setting in which they experience this, before the reflection takes off.

In other cases, however, it is recommended to start with ‘experiencing’ before the reflection can start. One of the areas where this is commonly done is aesthetics / reflections on art and beauty. I thought about this while spending most of my Wednesday in the Prado museum. I imagined being there with my class and how I would give them the following assignment (as I have actually done at several occasions): make small groups and go and look for beauty. Be back in half an hour and then we’ll decide to which place all of us will go to encounter beauty and start our reflection.

It is about more than just ‘having the experience’ – it is about having a common experience, common not in the sense that we all have the same experience, but that we experience the same: we were all there and witnessed what happened. As witnesses of this ‘event’ we enter the enquiry.

Such common experiences are important, maybe even crucial, when the enquiry is about a topic / issue about which opinions / world views differ strongly and maybe even in conflict with one another. I remind myself of the students who wanted to share their objections to what for them was ‘public nakedness on display’, but they only encountered criticism and unwillingness to listen and enquire. The teacher thought the topic was too sensitive and choose for something else.

I would take the class to Albrecht Dűrer’s paintings of Adam and Eve, sit on the floor and look at them. And then I would take them to a small circular space with beautiful light from the top. Against the pink coloured wall a female torso stands and nothing is there to veil her shame. From the text on the wall I learned that from the positioning of the upper arms the historians have concluded that her underarm and hands both covered her breasts and pubis, as the text says. She’s awkwardly naked, uncomfortable, and I as a viewer felt uncomfortable. I was glad nobody else was there while I ‘studied’ the torso and took a couple of pictures. Witnesses too have feelings of shame. Should the torso be on display? Or should it be ‘reconstructed’ with two prostheses first? In another case, a couple rooms further, this had been done, but that had happened a couple centuries ago, for reasons unknown. The class will have a look at that one as well. And we would talk about ‘puberty’ and how that term does not so much refer to growing up / coming of age, as to the awakening of our moral sentiments about the nakedness of our bodies.

There, in that setting, I / the facilitator believe, I have the confidence that we can make happen what will not happen in a classroom: an enquiry about nakedness, shame, pride and beauty. There, just there, because our shared experiences will lead us and help us to maintain our willingness of self-examination, as Socrates advocated.

Reflections on ICPIC & SOPHIA Part II

On deliberation, enquiry based actions and practising philosophy with children without philosophy

By Pieter Mostert

What happens to notes taken during a conference? Usually very little, at least in my case. This time I decided to do it differently – after the ICPIC conference in Madrid and the Sophia Network meeting in Aveiro – and pushed myself to structure and unfold my notes into short essays, representing my ‘inner dialogues’ on a number of topics. Here is the second of 3 blogs on my reflections. You can read the first one here.

You can find some of the presentations that were given at SOPHIA on our resources page for members.

On deliberation

I notice the rise of the word ‘deliberation’, both as an adjective in the coined phrase ‘deliberative democracy’ and as a noun (and noticed that ‘dialogue’ has become less in use). Don’t get tricked by the middle ‘e’ in ‘deliberation’; its meaning is not connected to any ‘liberation’, but to ‘libra’, the pair of scales, used to weigh the different ‘goods’ (that’s why the sign for a UK pound is the £): what was most important, what was most striking, what was lacking, what do we take with us and what do we leave behind?

When Socrates claims in his famous quote, that an unexamined life is not a life for human beings, or positively stated: a human life = an examined life, I read this as a double claim, as the concept of ‘examination’ (or – closer to the Greek word he uses: assessment) includes two aspects or phases: the aspect of enquiry / investigation and the aspect of ‘judging’ or ‘valuing’ what you have enquired / investigated. An exam / assessment leads to a judgement, of a yes / no type (“yes, you qualified as a doctor”) or on a scale (“your performance ranks in the top 20%”) or qualitative (“what you have submitted is a genuine and thorough attempt to grasp …”).

When a philosophy for children session only covers the first part, the enquiry / investigation, we’ve finished too early. The enquiry should lead us to some kind of ‘position’, provisional (as the enquiry could have gone on) and maybe disputed, as some may hold this ‘position’ and others another one. And in some cases we will conclude that we honestly “do not know”, and that is a position too, like a doctor can tell you that after all the tests have been done (s)he has no idea what is the cause of the symptoms. So I feel attracted to the use of ‘deliberation’, as it encourages us to make that second step of ‘coming to terms’: at the end of the enquiry we take some time to decide where we stand, individually or as a group. This conference has made me more aware of the relevance of this second step.

Deliberation is quite different from reflection. Reflection is the process of looking back and into what we have experienced and thought before. As such it is part of the first step of enquiry: collecting all the material that is relevant ‘to be put on the scales’. Deliberation is the specific process of weighing, of daring to say what is more important / puts more weight on the scale than other things. It reminds me of the famous booklet ‘Regula’ by St. Benedict, founder of the Benedict convents. He wrote the booklet for the abbots who struggled with their ‘leadership’, as one would say nowadays. St. Benedict explains that when you need to make a decision as the abbot, make sure that if it is an important issue, all the monks take part in the deliberation (and let the young ones speak first!, he adds), so that everything that should be taken into consideration in the final decision by the abbot is brought forward. This reminds me of the staff meetings of the engineering department of the university for professional education in Rotterdam, which I facilitated for a year in Benedictian style. Good memories.

On enquiry based actions

Is philosophy only thinking / reflection or does it also include action? If so, what kind of ‘actions’ are we talking about?

First of all, we usually consider a certain minimal set of ‘actions’ as required: children should sit in a circle (although this is not always possible and that does not make a philosophical enquiry impossible, as I have experienced), the teacher should take the role of facilitator and enable to students to engage in their enquiry (which means that we don’t want that our enquiries look like Socrates’ dialogues, in which there is no facilitator and one participant behaves in a very dominant manner), and we want that this ‘engagement’ of the students takes place in a fair and respectful manner. These – and similar ones – are ‘actions’ we feel obliged to when doing philosophy for children. But is that it?

A second category of ‘actions’ is a person’s decision to develop philosophical enquiries for specific groups or circumstances: gifted children, who do not feel ‘recognized’ in the standard school system, or for underprivileged or disabled children, for the same reason, exclusion. For most of us it is not irrelevant where we facilitate philosophy for children enquiries. Some settings we consider more relevant than others, because of the contribution (to social change) we want to make. Some have strong preferences to practise philosophy for children outside the school or at least in mixed age groups, others prefer to incorporate it in the teaching of other subject areas, and so on. Fortunately we differ in our considerations, so as a total a wide spectrum is covered.

More complex it becomes for me when I ask myself whether I think that a philosophical enquiry should have ‘consequences’: if children come to some shared conclusions, about what is fair / good, should we support / encourage them in applying these conclusions to and testing them in their direct environment? Example: should an enquiry about health and sustainability lead to changes in what is offered in the school’s cafeteria and vending machines? Or can that only be decided when the whole school has participated in philosophical enquiries on this topic? Which makes it rather unrealistic in most cases. So what should happen / change after the students have finished one or more philosophical enquiries? Nothing? That seems too little. But what should it be?

It sounds awkward to me to do philosophical enquiries for gifted children as a weekly activity in a school which for the rest of the week expects from these children that they behave ‘like normal’ and accept how schooling is done. Feeling recognized / valued / seen is not something which one can restrict to a short time. It is unlikely that a student will feel ‘included’ when most of the time (s)he is ‘excluded’. But at the same time our powers for changing our environment, most directly and a little further away, are limited. Does it mean that we should only do philosophical enquiries if the values underlying these enquiries are shared and practised throughout the whole institution / school? Or should we think that for these students it is better to have at least some opportunity to feel included, instead of refusing them this opportunity because it is too little?

There is something called the ‘political’ dimension of P4C. Personally I would not have chosen that word, ‘political’, but I can understand when people do so. It’s about the question that I took with me to the ICPIC conference: If in P4C we enquire ‘the good life’, shouldn’t part of P4C be the practising of ‘a good life’, or at least an attempt to do so, and what counts as a ‘good’ attempt? How far should this go? Is it only within the space of the philosophy enquiry (make sure that the enquiry is done in a good, respectful, democratic, inclusive, etc. way)? Or should we support (or even encourage) children to engage in some kind of social action, as an act of persecution of the outcomes of their enquiry?

This question is not to be answered with a simple Yes or No. It is about to what degree / extent and with what aim? One of the PhD students at the ICPIC conference told about an initiative to take the P4C class outside the school to the community and involve adult members of the community in the enquiries. The students discovered that the adults seemed to be quite reluctant to share their thoughts and at the same time that the adults found it quite rather difficult to really listen to what the students had to say. The students were disappointed by this experience, but at the same time they learned about the world outside the classroom, the real world and how it is ‘to be in the world’.

On practicing ‘philosophy for children’ without philosophy

I myself come from both an educational and a philosophical background. In my biography there is not a first and a second, and I have always felt privileged by what was given to me. Conversations at the ICPIC conference have convinced me that I need to accept the reality as it is and will remain, namely that philosophy for children is mainly practised by school teachers with little knowledge of philosophy. So I set myself the task to think more and clearer about a concept / description of what philosophy in ‘philosophy for children’ is, which meets this reality and does not presuppose knowledge of philosophy.

I do not know yet whether it is possible, but I would like to come to a description of philosophy for children in which the philosophical dimension / content is present, but in such a way that it can be understood and identified by a person who is not familiar with (the academic tradition of) philosophy. This would not be a first attempt. It has been tried before, for example in telling teachers that they must distinguish between empirical and philosophical questions. But this is an example of an attempt which does not work nor help; it confuses and makes teachers reject very useful questions for philosophical enquiries. Two of my favourites: “Can music get wet?” and “What if our knees would bend the other way?”.

SOPHIA Network Meeting 2017

Meeting 2017

Our next meeting will be held in Portugal on Monday July 3rd and Tuesday July 4th. There is still time to register to join us.

We have international speakers and workshop leaders running 12 workshops over the two days on the theme of ‘Questioning questioning.’ You can find out more about what will be going on here: Meeting 2017

SOPHIA will be holding our Meeting on Monday July 3rd and Tuesday July 4th 2017 at  Colégio D. José I in Aveiro, Portugal. There are direct flights, which take 1 hour 10 minutes from Madrid to Porto, and then an hour’s drive to Aveiro, or a train journey.

If you are staying in Portugal after the meeting then please consider going to the following conference in Porto on July 7th and 8th by the Episteme & Logos Association:

International Conference Philosophy for Children

Travel

You can travel by train from Oporto or Lisbon to Averio, for train times / shuttle bus see:

https://www.cp.pt/passageiros/en/

For more on getting around and to Aveiro see Lonely Planet:

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/portugal/aveiro

Uber operates in Portugal.

Accommodation

We recommend staying in the central district, and suggest booking through Booking.com. Alternatively you might want to try airbnb. There will be buses to get you from central Aveiro to the College.

4 stars hotels

  • Hotel As Américas
  • Hotel Aveiro Palace
  • Hotel Moliceiro
  • Melia Ria Hotel & Spa

3 stars hotels

  • Hotel Imperial
  • Hotel das Salinas
  • Hotel Afonso V

For some deals please download: Accommodation for SOPHIA

To see this years timetable and speakers visit our registration page please register or become a member of SOPHIA to stay up-to-date with travel and accommodation details.

 

Welcoming Talk Crete 2016

SOPHIA: opening remarks

SOPHIA Network Meeting 2nd of September, 2016, Rethymno

Meeting theme: From Ancient Greece to the Modern Curriculum, where does philosophy fit?

Welcoming address:

“Where does philosophy fit?

I’ll begin by saying: philosophy resists ‘fit’. If you look for philosophy you’ll find it where you find, among other things, aporia, confusion, difficulty, paradox. It may not ‘fit’ anywhere, but it has a role. And maybe the role is informed by its lack of ‘fit’. Philosophy is something of an unwelcome guest at a party, an awkward, difficult child in a classroom, an ugly, brutal truth at a wedding.

I prefer to talk about philosophy’s reach. In the beginning ‘philosophy’ captured all learning and included geometry, mathematics, rhetoric, cosmology, physics, metaphysics, biology and more. And though each of these subjects has become, in the classroom anyway, independent of philosophy, philosophy still secures a corner for itself in each despite attempts to shake it off. When an historian asks, ‘What exactly is an historical fact?’ or ‘What exactly is knowledge of the past?’ and ‘What is the past?’ they are asking philosophical questions. Or if a scientist asks, ‘Does the notion of ‘before time’ make sense?’ or ‘How can we represent an object such as an atom if it cannot be observed?’ and ‘Can such a representation be accurate?’ they too are asking philosophical questions. And though they may be an historian or a scientist, they are philosophising. In most if not all subjects, any student of the subject will at some point fall into a ‘philosophical hole’ that the subject has been unable to remove, fill in or cover up. So, philosophy is able to reach within all subjects though it may fit none.

And this leaves us with a question about how it’s done: should philosophy be discrete or integrated? Done in addition to everything else or done within everything else? For my part, I think there is a case for both but I don’t have time to make them here. I’ll finish with a cautionary note: my concern is that philosophy in schools is perhaps made to fit too much. By trimming it, covering its naked truth, sweetening it to better ‘fit the system’ we betray it. If we over-emphasise the collaborative aspect or its democratic allegiance, and under-emphasise its subversiveness, if we sentimentalise its power to better the world, if we reduce it to a ‘no right or wrong’ exchange of opinions, wiping away its evaluative strengths, we castrate it. We must be more careful to present philosophy to children not only as milk; philosophy sometimes has a bitter taste.

Where does philosophy fit? Perhaps its virtue lies in not fitting.”

Peter Worley, President of SOPHIA

Our resources section for 2016 will soon be filled with presentations, papers and workshops from this years presentation. You can see previous years here: SOPHIA Resources

Using Poetry for Philosophical Enquiries

By Peter Worley

When National Poetry Day and World Poetry Day come around each year I like to use poetry for all my philosophy sessions where possible. I usually write some more Thoughtings and a blog. This year I have got a little over-excited about poetry. Because I love it! So this is the second blog on poetry which follows on from my previous blog post ‘Why Poetry? Because it is like the TARDIS…’

Something similar to what follows can be found in the appendices at the back of Thoughtings together with a sample lesson plan around one particular Thoughting. The poems in that collection have been written specifically to do philosophy with, however philosophy can also be done with many other poems not written to do philosophy. With that in mind, I’ve put this together for anyone who wishes to start using poetry as a starting stimulus for doing philosophy but who lacks the confidence (or a procedure) to do so. This is only a guideline so the word to bear in mind is ‘variation’ – play around with this structure to best fit your aims, your class or group and your poem. All the poems mentioned here can be found by following the links in my previous blog ‘Why Poetry?…’

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